White House Releases Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion Policy Directive

White House Releases Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion Policy Directive

The  White House continues to work hard on space policy issues as the Trump Administration comes to a close. Just one week after issuing an update of the broad National Space Policy, today it released Space Policy Directive-6 on space nuclear power and propulsion. A Senior Administration Official demurred when asked if there are any more in the queue.

The Senior Administration Official told reporters during a media telecon this morning that this sixth Trump Space Policy Directive, SPD-6, has been in the works for more than a year.  It lays out goals, principles, and a roadmap to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to using Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion (SNPP) systems “safely, effectively, and responsibly.”

The principles of SPD-6 are:

  • The United States will pursue goals for SNPP development and utilization that are both enabling and ambitious:
    • Develop capabilities that enable production of fuel suitable to a range of planetary surface and in-space SNPP applications;
    • Demonstrate a fission power system on the Moon;
    • Establish technical foundations and capabilities that will enable options for in-space nuclear propulsion; and
    • Develop advanced radioisotope power systems to enable survivable surface systems and extend robotic exploration of the solar system.
  • The United States will adhere to principles of safety, security, and sustainability in its development and utilization of SNPP systems.
  • The United States will pursue a coordinated roadmap for Federally supported SNPP activities and a framework to encourage commercial activities to achieve goals and uphold the principles established in this Directive.

SPD-6 builds on a Trump Administration memorandum last year updating the process for approving launches of space nuclear systems.

Scott Pace, Deputy Assistant to the President and Executive Secretary of the National Space Council, said in a statement that “Space nuclear power and propulsion is a fundamentally enabling technology for American deep space missions to Mars and beyond. The United States intends to remain the leader among spacefaring Nations, applying nuclear power technology safely, securely, and sustainably in space.”

Section 5 of SPD-6 provides a roadmap that includes demonstrating a fission power system on the lunar surface by the mid-late 2020s and, by 2027, initiating a fission lunar surface power project that is scalable for use in exploration of Mars.  It also addresses nuclear propulsion and calls for establishing the technical foundations and capabilities to enable Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) to meet DOD and NASA needs by the late 2020s.

A theme throughout the directive is engaging with the private sector.

Last week, the Trump Administration released a National Space Policy that devotes a section to space nuclear power and propulsion. Asked why this separate policy is needed, the Senior Administration Official said the White House more broadly wants to revitalize the nuclear power industry building on development of small modular reactors for terrestrial as well as space uses. While this policy focuses on the space aspect, the overall goal is to better coordinate work at DOD, NASA, and the Department of Energy to provide a comprehensive framework to build the industrial base and enable specific applications.

Asked if this was the final space policy directive or Executive Order of the Trump Administration, the Senior Administration Official was non-committal.  The National Space Council will “keep working hard” so “I wouldn’t rule anything out, but nothing is real until the President signs it.”

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